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Chavez offers Russia use of base

Russian Tupolev-160 plane, archive photo
Venezuela hosted two Russian Tu-160 bombers in September for exercises

Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez, says he has offered Moscow the use of an airfield off its Caribbean coast for Russian strategic long-range bombers.

But Mr Chavez denied there would be discussions on building any permanent base on the island of La Orchila.

The comments came a day after a senior Russian air force general said it was considering Venezuela's offer of a "whole island with an aerodrome".

Moscow has played down the general's remarks, saying they were hypothetical.

Russia has been strengthening its ties in recent months with several Latin American countries including Venezuela.

The two countries held joint naval exercises in Venezuelan waters in November.

'Nothing new'

Speaking on Sunday evening on his weekly TV and radio programme, Alo Presidente, Mr Chavez insisted reports that he had offered the Russian military a permanent base on La Orchila were not true.

"I simply told [Russian] President [Dmitry] Medvedev that any time Russia's strategic aircraft need to land in Venezuela to meet their strategic aims, Venezuela will be at their service," he said.

If a relevant political decision is made, this is possible
Maj-Gen Anatoly Zhikharev
Russian Air Force

"We did just that not too long ago, when their strategic long-range bombers came. There is nothing new in that," he added.

Venezuela hosted two Russian Tu-160 "Blackjack" bombers in September for high-profile exercises.

The Tu-160 is capable of carrying 12 cruise missiles that can be fitted with nuclear warheads, and has a range of 12,300km (7,642 miles) without refuelling.

On Saturday, Maj-Gen Anatoly Zhikharev, the Russian air force's chief of staff for long-range aviation, said Mr Chavez had offered "a whole island with an aerodrome, which we can use as a temporary base for strategic bombers".

"If a relevant political decision is made, this is possible," he told the Interfax news agency in Moscow.

Gen Zhikharev said he had visited La Orchila to examine its military airfield. The runway was being extended, he said, making it the right length for takeoff by Russia's long-range bombers when they are heavily loaded with fuel.

Foreign bases were forbidden under Venezuelan law, "but the temporary deployment of a contingent, for example for carrying out patrols, which is what we do, is possible," he added.

After the report was published, a Kremlin spokesman said Gen Zhikharev had merely been "speaking about technical possibilities".

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